Note: These gloves were downrated from 4 stars a couple of months after this review was written. Reasons: (1) a seam began splitting and a hole wore through the palm under the left hand’s pinky; (2) the gloves turned palms gray when worn during rainy or sweaty weather. The stained skin persisted for several days. The dye also smudged clothes in the wash. Meanwhile, bouts of numb/tingly fingers continued.
Paris-Brest-Paris is murder on hands. Aerobars, once permitted, were later outlawed for safety reasons — too many crashes in the big packs that form during the 1,200-km (744-mile) trek through northwest France. With 4,000 cyclists on the road, there’s enough danger without some riders steering with their elbows.
So hands get little relief during PBP’s 90 hours. I know it for a fact after my last two rides in what has endured to become cycling’s oldest event. Each time, I suffered numb fingers that took weeks to recover. In fact, the numbness lasted so long in 2003 that I feared the condition might be permanent. Feeling finally returned after five months.
I don’t want to go through that again. Not in the next Paris-Brest-Paris, set for August ’07, or anytime sooner. I love doing lengthy rides, including PBP qualifying events (brevets) that range up to 600K (372 miles). But because PBP doesn’t allow aero bars I don’t use them for other rides either. Why train in a position that can’t be used for The Big One?
Handlebar padding and gloves, then, play a big role in combating the nerve compression that causes fingers to tingle or become numb. I use a slightly spongy cork tape and have been wearing Spenco Ironman Elite gloves. They’re designed to reduce pressure on the carpel tunnel and median nerve running from the wrist through the palm.
By wearing Ironman Elite gloves and frequently changing hand position (important no matter what type of gloves are worn), the promise is that numbness will be prevented.
I’ve worn other cycling gloves designed to reduce nerve pressure. They use pads to cushion the palm and some, like the Ironman Elite, have a channel for the nerve to pass through. Such gloves can be ineffective, though, when (a) the padding is made from foam that breaks down with use and flattens, or (b) the padding is made from squishy gel that moves away from areas of greater pressure, exactly what you don’t want to happen.
The Elite addresses both problems by using five pads ofdense, 6-mm-thick Spenco gel (the Tour and Pro gloves have three such pads). Termed “Shock-Tek Technology,” these pads are firm and dense so they don’t flatten or migrate. They add a bit of softness, they allow a slight shearing action between the bar and palm to reduce friction on skin, and they damp vibration.
The five pads make the Elite somewhat heavier than any other short-finger gloves I can remember wearing. The pads are noticeable when hands wrap around the handlebar because they’re firm as well as thick. The long horizontal pad at the base of the fingers is particularly conspicuous when gripping the bar tops. It’s not the normal sensation but it’s not a problem.
Built to Last
Palm padding aside, the Elite is a top-quality glove. It should be, considering the price. Features include a tenacious hook-and-loop closure, an elastic wristband, a stretchy mesh back, Pittards leather, and absorbent terry on the thumb for wiping eyes, nose or mouth. The gloves are black except for silver piping and red fabric between the fingers, which looks kinda sharp. For durability, there’s leather reinforcement in the crotch of the thumb and overlock stitching at the end of each finger.
These gloves are machine washable but are supposed to be line dried. However, I accidentally tossed them into the dryer with a load of bike clothes and noticed they survived. I’ve machine dried them (medium heat) half a dozen more times without any apparent damage. According to the company, though, using a drier voids the one-year “unconditional” guarantee.
During almost 60 hours of riding in the Elites, one problem turned up: The end of the elastic wristband is fraying at the same spot on both gloves. It appears this is being caused by contact with the handlebar when hands are in a certain position on the brake lever hoods. It’s not something that should affect the gloves’ performance or longevity.
Shock-Tek Not Fail Safe
I like the Ironman Elite gloves for lots of reasons. They are well made, stylish, comfortable, and the dense pads will certainly protect palms in a fall. They’re pricey, but my pair is holding up well. It’s easy to imagine them enduring for an entire season.
Unfortunately, for me, the Shock-Tek pads did not protect against numbness as well as promised. On several rides I’ve experienced mild, transitory tingling in the fingers of my left hand. That’s the one susceptible to not being moved much because I’m right handed. The left stays on the bar while the right reaches for the water bottle, zips my jersey, pulls food from a rear pocket, wipes my nose, clicks the computer buttons, and so on.
So my riding technique could contribute to nerve pressure and tingling. Or perhaps I’m now predisposed to the problem after suffering two lengthy PBP-related bouts of finger numbness. There’s no reason to believe the gloves are causing the tingling. It’s just too bad they still allow it.
I’ll continue wearing these gloves because I believe they’ll help in the long run (ride). I’m already thinking about clothing and equipment for PBP ’07. Right now they’re on the list of things to take. I’ll see how they continue to perform this season in rides as long as 250 miles.
If you’re concerned about hand nerve injury and numbness, you can try the Ironman Elite gloves without risk. Spenco offers this one-year guarantee: “Your money back if you are not completely satisfied with these gloves for any reason.” Except if they get fried in the drier.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.